Iraq’s Chronic Problems Likely to Continue in 2020

    It is worthwhile to note that many people have been taking to the streets specifically because they do not believe elections in Iraq are free and fair. Demonstrators have also been increasingly vocal in demanding the curbing of Iranian influence in Iraq.

    Iraq’s anti-government protesters, who took to the streets on October 1st, succeeded in toppling Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi in two months. However, their calls for an end to corruption, more job opportunities and better basic services are not likely to be answered anytime soon. In fact, the country is likely to face in 2020 a similar set of challenges that it did the years before.

    The first challenge is selecting a new prime minister who can implement the promises that his predecessors have failed to deliver. The current makeup of parliament – based on the results of the May 2018 elections –failed to produce a ruling coalition. The two biggest blocs in parliament are the Saairun Alliance, led by nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Fatah Alliance led by pro-Iran militia leader Hadi Al-Amiri. After each of the rival alliances failed to secure the backing of 165 lawmakers in the 329-seats legislative body needed to form a government, they agreed on a consensus candidate: Abdul-Mahdi. Now they must restart the tedious process of agreeing on another candidate who is likely to be just as weak as Abdul-Mahdi as he will not have the backing of a cohesive parliamentary bloc. Furthermore, the new PM will face the challenge of trying to balance the wishes of the two rival alliances that nominated him. The new candidate will most likely serve in a caretaker capacity, further restricting his powers, until new elections are held.

    Holding elections, however, will itself be another challenge. Electoral reform is among the demands of protesters, who see the electoral system as being rigged in favour of the existing dominant parties. Although parliament is currently working on a bill to ensure a fairer election mechanism, observers are not expecting a breakthrough. This would, after all, mean that the sitting lawmakers would be voting to effectively reduce the influence of their own parties. However, continued protests coupled with international pressure could result in parliament passing some electoral reforms, which would, therefore, ease tensions over this issue until the next scheduled elections.

    It is worthwhile to note that many people have been taking to the streets in recent years specifically because they do not believe elections in Iraq are free and fair. There have been numerous calls for a shakeup of the country’s electoral commission, with protesters mocking the word ‘independent’ in its official name: the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC). That lack of trust is one of the reasons that Iraq’s 2018 elections witnessed its lowest voter turnout since 2005 (official figures cited 44.5%, but Iraq analysts said the real number is likely to be lower). The doubts of the boycotters were not misplaced. That election witnessed widespread cases of fraud, according to the government’s own investigation, leading parliament to order a partial manual recount and suspend the work of the IHEC. That was further complicated when a fire ripped through the country’s largest ballot warehouse ahead of the recount. The controversy over electoral fraud allegations appears to have led Sadr and Amiri, who were competitors during the election campaign, to close ranks in the face of parliament’s legitimacy crisis. When holding elections in 2020, the Iraqi government would not only need to avoid the last voting blunder, it would also need to convince voters – ahead of polling day – that upcoming elections would be different this time around. Half measures would delay, not prevent, another flare-up over the legitimacy of the government.

    Demonstrators have been increasingly vocal in demanding the curbing of Iranian influence in Iraq. While public sympathy towards Iran from Iraq’s Arab Shia community has been sharply decreasing, Tehran still has the ears of Iraqi politicians across the spectrum. There is a class of politicians, militia leaders and clerics who are vocally pro-Iranian and are likely to remain so, even if it undermines stability in the country. Most of those figures can be found in the Fatah alliance. There is also the class of politicians who, witnessing the increasing public distrust of Iran in Shia communities over the past two years, have rebranded themselves from pro-Iranian to Iraqi moderates. These include members of the al-Hikma movement, led by Ammar al-Hakim. They are now criticised for failing to object to abuses reportedly carried out by pro-Iranian militias against protesters, and are often seen as quiet supporters of Tehran. Finally, there are the Iraqi politicians who present themselves as Iraqi patriots that act independently of Iran’s wishes. These include Sadr, however, there is a limit to the cleric’s ability to resist Iranian pressure. There is little indication that the behaviour of the aforementioned politicians will drastically change in 2020.

    Iran’s influence has also extended to some politicians from Iraq’s Arab Sunni community, including Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi. Tehran has sought to establish channels with these figures via Iraq’s Shia militia leaders following the war on the Islamic State (IS) in the Sunni-dominated areas of the country. These ties are likely to continue, however, there are other Sunni politicians who – being critical of Iran – prefer to foster ties with Sadr or with former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

    Often underreported is the extent of Iranian influence on Kurdish parties in Iraq’s semi-autonomous northern region, particularly on the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) also enjoys good relations with Tehran; however, their dealings are mostly kept away from the public eye. Good relations between Turkey and the KDP-led Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have made Kurdish politicians who are loyal to the Barzani family less reliant on Iran but that should not be understood as being representative of cooling of ties with Tehran. KDP leaders are less likely to be publicly supportive of Iran in the face of US pressure against Tehran as they seek to present themselves as Washington’s allies. There have also been recent reports that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are seeking to strengthen their ties with the KRG.

    The KRG-controlled region itself witnessed anti-corruption demonstrations against regional politicians in 2017 and 2018, which were subsequently crushed. There was no appetite for disgruntled Iraqi Kurds to risk the wrath of the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan this year, however, all the ingredients for mass discontent are there. A resumption of protests is not out of the question in 2020. The chances of any meaningful change happening in the region, however, are very slim. Small Iraqi Kurdish parties accuse the KDP and PUK of using illegitimate means to maintain a hold of power: election fraud, use of the budget (which comes from Baghdad) to pay for loyalties, intimidation as well as job offers via the Peshmerga (the KDP and PUK are effectively the only two political Kurdish parties which have their own militias), silencing of journalists/dissident and the restriction of the Speaker of Parliament which led to the suspension of Iraqi Kurdistan’s legislative body in 2015 (the last accusation is mainly levelled at the KDP). There is no evidence to suggest that a change in the power balance among Kurdish parries is going to take place anytime soon.

    Anti-corruption politicians in Baghdad are unlikely to interfere in internal KRG matters. They will want to form alliances with the dominant Iraqi Kurdish parties. Baghdad parliamentarians may pass general anti-corruption laws that overlook loopholes in the Kurdish-majority region. The differences between Baghdad and Erbil are likely to be over budget issues or the status of the multi-ethnic province of Kirkuk, but not on how the dominant Iraqi Kurdish parties run the KRG.

    Residents of the Sunni-majority areas are likely to continue to have problems with some of their communities’ own representatives in parliament – also accused of corruption. More worryingly, government disregard for the suffering of people in that region will threaten the security of the country as a whole. Though far from their former strength, groups such as Daesh are waiting for the opportunity to make a comeback.

    [This piece originally appeared as a contribution to the “2020: The Year Ahead” report.]

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